Friday, January 11, 2008

The Nation Forum: The Global War on Terror Terroizes: Case Histories: Egypt, El Salvador, The Phillipines, Thailand, Pakistan

The Nation

Forum: What GWOT Has Wrought

This article can be found on the web at

[from the December 31, 2007 issue]

On September 20, 2001, before a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush declared, "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.... Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." As it turned out, those fateful words ushered in not a concerted worldwide campaign against militant fundamentalism but a wave of repression felt around the globe. Instead of being a standard-bearer for human rights and civil liberties, the United States lowered the bar, creating secret prisons or "black sites," erecting Guantánamo, rationalizing torture and curtailing civil liberties at home. The US-fashioned "global war on terror" (GWOT) was then replicated in country after country, adapting to local circumstances to provide rhetorical refuge for tyrants and forsaking democratic principles. As the articles that follow show, the "war on terror" has been invoked to arrest and torture prodemocracy activists in Egypt, round up street vendors and protesters in El Salvador, rationalize politically motivated assassinations in the Philippines, jail bloggers and censor websites in Thailand and condone military dictatorship in Pakistan. The criminalization of dissent is not new to these places, and it does not always reflect US intervention or security interests. But the "war on terror" is a new paradigm, and it has proven remarkably versatile and severely damaging. While purporting to protect democracy against its enemies, the "war on terror" has become one of them.

GWOT: Egypt


This article can be found on the web at

[from the December 31, 2007 issue]

There's a story that when the news arrived that airplanes had flown into the World Trade Center, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turned to one of his aides and said, "My job just got a little bit easier." Throughout the 1980s and '90s Egypt fought its own nasty, brutish "war on terror." As militant groups--Gama'a Islamiya and Islamic Jihad most prominent among them--orchestrated attacks on government officials, members of the country's Coptic minority and even foreign tourists, thousands of people were locked up incommunicado in crackdowns across the country. Most of the detained were tortured; others simply disappeared. At the height of the dirty war, some 30,000 suspected militants--or at least those unlucky enough to be regarded as such--had been whisked away to Egypt's famously inhospitable prisons. Enter 9/11 and the vaguely defined "war on terror" it inspired. Here was the perfect opportunity for Mubarak--by then a semibionic man entering his third decade of rule--to summon up his trusty narrative about fighting terror at all costs, especially in justifying his exceptional powers, not to mention his government's growing crackdowns on its own citizens.

Suddenly the sort of arbitrary detention, trials on flimsy evidence, torture and trampling of freedom of expression and assembly that had long been de rigueur in Egypt found a home under the banner of a global war on terror. When the Americans were in need of an ally in executing their extraordinary-rendition program, Egypt handily stepped up to the plate--quickly becoming one of the favored recipients of the unlucky Abu Omars of the world. Mubarak, in the meantime, continued to cooperate with the United States on security issues and maintained Egypt's fraught diplomatic ties with Israel. The country was, in turn, ensured its sustained bounty of military aid ($1.3 billion for 2008 alone)--and a blind eye was cast on its dismal human rights record.

Today, Mubarak's squeeze on civil liberties seems only to be growing tighter. The country's very own Patriot Act, in the form of an "emergency law" (this is the sort of emergency that knows no end; Egyptians have lived under its aegis continuously since 1981), was renewed in 2006 despite Mubarak's repeated promises to do away with it. A series of thirty-four cumbersome constitutional amendments hastily pushed through in March 2006 further cut into civil liberties. Among them, Article 179 places unprecedented restrictions on the right to privacy and due process, and gives the government sanction to use exceptional courts in trying terrorism suspects. While Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's smooth-talking ambassador to the United States, has indicated that a new terrorism bill will "provide for the necessary checks and safeguards on the use of executive power in fighting terrorism," the law is more than likely to be the same old emergency law in a new guise. Tellingly, the USA Patriot Act and Britain's Anti-Terrorism Law have been cited in Egyptian parliamentary discussions surrounding the bill. They have theirs, too--or so the logic ran.

When bombs went off in Egypt's stark Sinai Peninsula in 2004, 2005 and again in 2006, the state strained to frame the attacks as acts of foreign machination, even though most signs pointed to the operations being homegrown (Sinai's population has long been marginalized by the state, and the territory is thickly littered with gripes). In the bombings' wake, thousands have been arrested, and thus far three men have been sentenced to death for the 2004 bombings at the Red Sea resort town of Taba. Local human rights activists have pointed to questionable evidence, irregular trial proceedings and allegations of torture in eliciting "confessions" from the three. Even more recently, there have been indications that the state security forces may have gone as far as to fabricate incidents of terrorism to justify arrests. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, authorities have used trumped-up terrorism charges to clamp down on suspected Islamists, including resorting to arbitrary detention and torture to elicit false confessions in one 2006 case involving twenty-two detainees, referred to as the Victorious Sect.

And in recent months, the state has further turned up the heat on its enemies and civil society--particularly with the question of succession uncomfortably lingering (who will succeed the 79-year-old Mubarak?) and indications of growing opposition to Mubarak's rule. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the lion's share of the pressure, with its highest-ranking leaders in and out of prison, while thirty-three members face trial in a military tribunal for membership in a banned organization and allegedly providing students with weapons and military training. Increasingly, the state has been monitoring the Brotherhood's financial doings. The state-run press frequently intimates that it is linked to international terrorist networks.

Torture continues to be rampant--of alleged Islamists, of democracy and labor activists, of bloggers and journalists. Authorities have shut down two NGOs in recent months, one that worked on torture cases and another on labor rights. The former, the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, had been involved in the first-ever lawsuit against a state security officer for torture. And at least ten journalists have been sentenced for various publishing offenses in the past months. Egyptian civil society has plainly seen better times.

Where are Egypt's American patrons, who for one brief moment called for reform, having occasionally leveraged their power in pushing for modest, if not merely symbolic, political openings? In a 2005 interview with ABC News on the eve of the country's first multiparty presidential election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Mubarak had "opened the door" to reform. But this past June, when George W. Bush voiced his concern for the fate of Ayman Nour, an opposition leader locked up on politically motivated charges, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit accused the American leader of "unacceptable" meddling in his country's affairs. The token gesture had been made, and it was back to business as usual. A Congressional foreign aid bill that would withhold $200 million in US military funds for Egypt--based on its human rights abuses as well as its failure to monitor weapons-smuggling into Gaza effectively--has shown little momentum since it passed the House this past summer.

And then came the news, in late July, that the United States had engineered a ten-year, multibillion-dollar arms package for Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Israel and Egypt. Ostensibly designed to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, the generous deal was described by the Secretary of State as part of a "renewed commitment to the security of our key strategic partners in the region." It seemed that the business of the "global war on terror" and, by extension, of cultivating friendly autocratic regimes had once again trumped reform. Egypt's door, once showing signs of cracking open, had slammed firmly shut. Somewhere, Hosni Mubarak was smiling.

Other Articles in the Forum

El Salvador, by Wes Enzinna
The Philippines, by Luis H. Francia
Thailand, by Noy Thrupkaew
Pakistan, by Shahan Mufti

GWOT: El Salvador


This article can be found on the web at

[from the December 31, 2007 issue]

In September 2006, after the Salvadoran Congress passed the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, then-US Ambassador H. Douglas Barclay congratulated the Salvadoran people. "The US and El Salvador are [now] partners in the war on terror," he beamed. The law, modeled on the USA Patriot Act, establishes a special terrorism tribunal and allows for anonymous witnesses and undercover agents to participate in those trials. It also criminalizes acts such as public protests, street blockades and "publicly justifying terrorism" with punishments of up to eighty years in prison. More than a year later, this law has turned scores of Salvadoran citizens into fugitives.

Last July, I spent two weeks in San Salvador chasing down one of these ersatz outlaws--Sandra Henriquez, a leader of the Salvadoran National Vendors Movement. On May 12 the National Civilian Police (PNC) raided vendors' stalls, including hers, in downtown San Salvador, attempting to confiscate the pirated goods they sell. The vendors resisted, and a group of angry onlookers--some say provocateurs--set fire to a police car. Shortly after, 150 riot police showed up and subdued the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Henriquez avoided arrest, but nineteen others were taken into police custody and charged under the antiterrorism law. At a press conference, President Elías Antonio Saca said, "[The vendors] are terrorists--the correct word is 'terrorist'.... Anyone who sells something illegal on the streets must go to prison."

On May 30 the government issued a blacklist of suspects accused of participating in the Vendors Movement and thus wanted on terrorism charges. Henriquez was in her home watching her 3-year-old son when she heard that her husband was on the list and had been arrested, along with several others, bringing the total to twenty-two in jail. "What I didn't know was that the government had made the order to capture me as well," she said. During the country's long civil war, government officials issued similar blacklists--the next day, many of those on the lists would be dead. "When I found out I was on the blacklist, I fled," Henriquez said.

The vendors were the first activists to be accused under the antiterrorism law, but they will not be the last. On July 2, protesters gathered in the town of Suchitoto to oppose President Saca's plan to "decentralize" the country's water systems, which many believe is the first step toward privatization. As government helicopters swirled in the sky, protesters blockaded the street, preventing Saca's caravan from entering the city. Riot police and PNC agents opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets, and arrested thirteen people, including four leaders of the rural development organization CRIPDES, as well as journalist María Haydee Chicas. Thirteen of those arrested are being charged under the antiterrorism law.

María Silvia Guillén, executive director in El Salvador of the Foundation for Studies of Applied Law, believes the law is being used as a political weapon. It creates "wild cards that allow the concepts and penalties of the law to be invoked or left aside at any given time, influenced by any political motive," she says. Pedro Juan Hernández, a professor of economics at the University of El Salvador, concurs. "The objective of these antiterrorist laws isn't to fight terrorism, because there haven't been acts of terrorism [in El Salvador] in many years," he recently told In These Times.

The Bush and Saca administrations maintain close ties. El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq and was the first to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The country receives $461 million over five years in US aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and is home to the controversial US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador.

Despite ample evidence of abuses, US officials have failed to condemn violations of civil liberties in El Salvador. "Whatever step a government takes against terrorism is an appropriate step," said Ambassador Barclay after El Salvador's antiterrorism law squeezed through Congress last year. He also made news when he urged the Salvadoran government to step up its use of wiretaps. Current US Ambassador Charles Glazer has remained silent on the issue and declined to go on record for this article.

US economic interests run deep in El Salvador. After the 1996 privatization of the country's electricity industry, corporations like North Carolina-based giant Duke Energy, once a business partner with Enron, swooped in to invest. If El Salvador's water infrastructure is privatized, analysts predict, a similar assault will follow; in May the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an agency of the US government, held a conference in San Salvador focusing on "investment opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure [and] energy." CAFTA also streamlines the privatization process and prioritizes strengthening intellectual property laws and punishments, and the ILEA's founding charter establishes intellectual property rights as a prime concern. Elsewhere, the ILEA has said its mission is to "enhance the functioning of free markets." The vendors, however, say that repression has increased since CAFTA and the ILEA came to El Salvador.

Wilfredo Berrios, a labor leader in San Salvador, argues that the recent crackdown is designed to silence protest against Saca's economic policies and to protect the investment climate for foreign businesses. "The opposition to CAFTA and to water privatization has been very strong," Berrios says. "These policies can't go forward unless their opponents are silenced."

Opponents of the new law now include three judges from the San Salvador tribunals, who recently criticized the measure for being too vague. In August forty-one US Congress members sent a letter to President Saca expressing concern over the arrest of Suchitoto protesters. On September 1 the government dropped all charges against the vendors. But the thirteen people arrested in Suchitoto, including Haydee Chicas, still face terrorism charges and will stand trial in February. If convicted, they could face up to sixty years in prison.

While it has offered rhetorical support for the antiterrorism law, the Bush Administration remains cautious about more direct intervention. After all, US involvement in the country's affairs--like the massacre at El Mozote, where US-trained soldiers raped, tortured and executed 900 villagers in 1981--has caused diplomatic disasters in the past. But like Ambassadors Barclay and Glazer, Washington remains quietly supportive of repression in El Salvador, continuing to deepen and benefit from economic and military ties with the Saca administration.

If the United States has learned to be more hands-off in its relations with El Salvador, President Saca draws a very different lesson from history. In a May 7 speech, he offered an example for today's armed forces to emulate in the "war on terror": Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the commander who led the massacre at El Mozote. "Colonel Monterrosa," Saca said without irony, "knew how to defend the nation, with nobility, in the saddest moment of the Republic."

Other Articles in the Forum

The Philippines, by Luis H. Francia
Thailand, by Noy Thrupkaew
Pakistan, by Shahan Mufti

GWOT: The Philippines


This article can be found on the web at

[from the December 31, 2007 issue]

Politically motivated killings in the Philippines--the United States' former colony and staunchest ally in Asia--have swelled since 9/11. According to Karapatan, an umbrella group for various Philippine human rights organizations, close to 900 men and women have been summarily executed since Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over in 2001 from disgraced President Joseph Estrada. Continuing to support Bush's "global war on terror," President Arroyo has ratcheted up her government's pressure on the Philippine left, reviving memories of the Marcos dictatorship and its dirty war against the opposition. Manila knows that as long as it supports the Bush Administration, thereby obtaining economic and military assistance from the United States, it can get away with murder--literally.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights First have criticized the Arroyo government for failing to prevent--and even abetting--such killings. A report to the United Nations by Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, based on a fact-finding visit in February, echoes such criticism. Alston points to two underlying causes for the unchecked murders: the indiscriminate labeling of left-wing groups as "front organizations" for "armed groups whose aim is to destroy democracy" and a government "counter-insurgency strategy" that encourages "the extrajudicial killings of activists and other 'enemies' in certain circumstances." Even the 2006 government-appointed Melo Commission blamed rogue elements in the military for these murders.

Those assassinated include pastors, labor leaders, student activists, farmers, workers and journalists--at least thirty-two of the last have been killed for reasons directly related to their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which ranks the Philippines as one of the most dangerous places for its profession. As veteran Manila columnist Luis Teodoro writes, "The killings are an integral part of the policy to dismantle whatever else remains of the democratic and populist legacies" brought about by the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Last February the Philippine Congress passed the Human Security Act (HSA)--a virtual copy of the US Homeland Security Act--and many expect even more human rights abuses in its wake. By broadening the government's arrest and detention powers, the law seriously undermines civil liberties. With its vague definition of what constitutes terrorism, HSA criminalizes dissent; thus, burning an effigy could be seen as a terrorist act.

Last August, in one of the first instances of the law's application, three visiting women's rights activists who are members of the US-based Gabriela Network (an affiliate of Gabriela Philippines, the nation's largest militant feminist group) were initially prevented from leaving Manila: Annaliza Enrile, a US citizen and professor at the University of Southern California; Judy Mirkinson, also a US citizen; and novelist Ninotchka Rosca, a US permanent resident. Having attended the tenth Women's International Solidarity Affair in the Philippines, the three found themselves on a government watch list because of suspected ties to the Taliban.

Liza Maza, Gabriela's elected representative to the Philippine Congress, calls the charge "utterly preposterous," given Gabriela's politics and the Taliban's medieval, misogynistic bent. Rosca, a political detainee under Marcos, describes such tactics as part of a larger strategy by President Arroyo, whose 2004 re-election was tainted by charges of cheating, to "crush...the left and other advocates of dissent before 2010, which is when her term ends." According to Rosca, Arroyo intends to "push through a constitutional enable her to remain in office." In what was perhaps a dry run, Arroyo declared a monthlong state of emergency in early 2006. Arroyo might also be turning a blind eye to the military's excesses to ensure its loyalty, which is tenuous--as demonstrated by a failed coup in late November.

Not coincidentally, this dirty war was revived shortly before US Special Operations Forces landed in Mindanao in January 2002--the first time American troops have been in the Philippines since US bases were shut down in 1992. Even though the Philippine Constitution forbids the basing of foreign troops on native soil, the US military has kept between 100 and 500 personnel in the Philippines for the past five years. Their presence is justified under the bilateral 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows for joint military exercises and permits the US military to advise and train Filipino troops. The arrangement is supposed to be provisional, but neither government has set an end date.

According to Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank that monitors US military activities, US soldiers have been more active than their technical roles allow. They've been photographed, by Agence France-Presse and Reuters, accompanying Philippine troops in their hunt for the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), alleged to have ties with the Southeast Asian terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah. Lee McClenny, US Embassy spokesman in Manila, states that the troops "are not involved in any combat roles but will fire back if fired upon.... Our role is to advise and assist the Philippine military."

Oddly, Philippine military units vastly outnumber the ASG, a small, violent and essentially criminal gang. Besides, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) knows the terrain much better than its US counterparts, having battled the Maoist New People's Army, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front for decades without any US advisers on hand. The command structure, however, is corrupt and plagued by persistent accusations that the ASG has paid off higher-ups in the past. It isn't tactical intelligence or foreign advisers that the AFP needs but sweeping reforms.

Equally disturbing, the United States is building installations for its troops, recently awarding a $14.4 million contract to Global Contingency Services of Irving, Texas, to construct these "temporary" structures. In the context of Philippine-US relations, "temporary" is a word fraught with irony. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the US naval fleet steamed into Manila Bay, ostensibly to aid the Filipinos in their revolution against Spain. Instead, the brutal 1899 Philippine-American War ensued when it became clear that the bluecoats were taking over the archipelago. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1990s, they have never left.

Other Articles in the Forum
Thailand, by Noy Thrupkaew
Pakistan, by Shahan Mufti
(Not available at posting time.--RB)

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